I have been approaching this write up with trepidation for quite some time. I devoured Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pretty quickly after Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Unlike the previous book, which moved the story along but was frankly rather disposable, it is hard to narrow down what to say about this book to a post that’s less than 5000 words. Let’s start with the basics. I read the majority of this 700+ page doorstop in one sitting. Rowling, in her last Harry Potter novel, has a glorious return to form – managing to avoid most of the mistakes that have plagued creators when we get this far down the road of a saga.
Where we left Harry of course was with his discovery of Horcruxes – objects Voldemort had left all around to assure his immortality. Harry had been taking special classes with Dumbledore where he was learning about Tom Riddle’s time at Hogwarts and his discovery of the Dark Arts. Dumbledore had been in the process of destroying Horcruxes and he had taken Harry on a mission to find one of the Horcruxes. However, upon his return to Hogwarts, we see the school falling into the hands of Voldemort’s Death Eaters, culminating in Snape’s murder of Dumbledore and subsequent escape. Snape was in the Order of the Phoenix as you may recall, and Harry had been assured of his allegiance, so this betrayal was both shocking while not surprising within context. Harry decides he has to find the other Horcruxes, and Hogwarts could wait.
This is quite the setup – but there is a LOT more plot. This is easily the densest of the seven books – no wonder they needed two movies to cover the material remotely adequately – and while only being slightly longer than Half Blood Prince does not slow down for an instant. Indeed, when the curtain goes up here, Voldemort is clearly winning. He has taken over Hogwarts, and set Snape up as the headmaster. Voldemort controls the Ministry of Magic and the Death Eaters are abound terrorizing Mudbloods (part humans) and their sympathizers. Harry is getting to an age where some of the protection he had is starting to disappear – so they decide he has to get to the Weasleys. However, he is also enemy number one, so how to transport him? This trip is an exciting scene, complete with a brilliant plan that Voldemort figures out – and a safe arrival, but not without another Order member dying.
This is an important detail to me. For a series with so much action, Harry Potter has been very serious and spare with the number of folks who actually die. So that Rowling kills somebody we know early shows just how serious things have gotten. Harry was lucky to escape, and if he wants to hunt down these Horcruxes, it will have to be under constant fear of Voldemort. That Ron and Hermione want to join him only make the journey tougher. Meanwhile, in the search for Horcruxes, another potential mission reveals itself – all of which comes to a head in the final confrontation you did not need me to tell you about.
The heart of the story is the search for the Horcruxes – and in its telling, Rowling gets down to brass tacks, focusing intensely at the fundamental relationships of this entire series. The rich other characters we have known – the Weasleys, the Order of the Phoenix Members, Beatrix LeStrange – are almost totally ignored here as we stare down the barrel of what has mattered the most the entire time: the three friends who have endured so much, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape. And in these relationships and tensions, the real themes of the series are laid bare – a vision of love, empathy, which comes together in a view of what personal growth is all about.
First and foremost, in its bones – The Deathly Hallows is a love story, and when I say this, I mean it in the most personal sense. What Harry, Ron and Hermione endure in this quest are the challenges and tests of love that only enduring the ordeal they have endured together can provide. It is the sort of thing that only comes from knowing people at their most petulant, or at their most desperate. With the dark forces and the constant fear everyone is living with through the quest – and how isolating it has become – the strain on our heroes becomes palpable. A scene in a makeshift camp where Ron and Hermione reveal feelings is almost unbearable to read. How much they mean to each other gushes to the service, in a way that will get the hankies out.
But love is also challenged as more is learned about Harry’s two unresolved relationships. Yes, in previous books we knew how close he was to Dumbledore, but Dumbledore was really presented as a postcard – a blessed saintly figure who has had to endure all sorts of lies and aspersions. But during this journey, Harry gets to learn that some of it indeed might not have been false. Albus was not a saint, but a complicated flawed human, who was a great man nonetheless. But Harry has to deal with Dumbledore in complex human terms – the way I remember as I learned about my own parents being normal adults with normal adult tics and problems, and not just superheroes (or for that matter losers when I was a teen) of my youth. Rowling develops Dumbledore with such complexity and richness, and forces Harry to deal with him, warts and all.
Conversely, Harry has to deal with what he learns about his nemesis, Snape. The bad blood and tension between the two (and principally flowing from Harry’s direction) have fueled much of the series, but we never learned exactly what Snape was all about, and why Dumbledore still trusted him the entire way. Late in the novel here, we get to see the entire backstory in flashback. The Snape we learn about in flashback, was also fueled by love, in ways Harry never understood before – and ways that Snape refused to reveal. Indeed, when Dumbledore and Snape are arguing over plans for Harry – it is Snape who pleads for Harry’s case. It is the flipside of what Harry had to learn about Dumbledore – that here Snape was not some one dimensional horror show, but a three dimensional adult with reasons. Now this comes a little close to “just trust grownups” for my taste, but the idea that love is all around is valuable. Moreover, the lesson of not seeing people as one dimensionally good or bad – and accept the frailties and complexities of life – is something many grownups don’t get. You just have to look at the proliferation of gun nuts and aspiring “freedom fighters” to get that.
Of course, there is more. There is the Battle of Hogwarts – and the unlikely resistance leader at Hogwarts (honestly, that made me cry as much as anything else). There is the subplot of the house elves, which has a lovely resolution too – and the final Harry and Voldemort confrontation ends the way it has to, but without being predictable or cheap. There is Draco Malfoy, who is even given humanity here when a lesser book might have turned him into a paint by numbers villain. (there is a lot of optimism about children generally, as there should be from us all) There is even a useful epilogue. The resolutions for everybody is pretty satisfying. If there is a flaw it is that Rowling only concentrates on the core characters for the most part here, but in a sense given the trajectory of the saga, that decision is entirely defensible. I love this series.